What Is Reformation Arminianism?

, posted by arminianbaptist

James M. Leonard

[Editor’s note: Please remember that individual posts do not necessarily represent SEA’s official position, but represent the views of the individual author of the post. With regard to this excellent and informative post, please note that the author was careful to qualify many of his comments about Welseyanism as applying to “some” Wesleyans (rather than all).]


For those well acquainted with the Calvinist-Arminian debate, Reformation Arminianism (or Classic Arminianism) is a theological system which emphasizes universal atonement within a framework of Calvinistic total depravity and the penal satisfaction view of the atonement (explained in the paragraphs below).

For those less acquainted with such matters, Reformation Arminianism is first of all a way of understanding how salvation is accomplished within the main lines of Protestantism, which tends to emphasize God’s free offer of salvation to all of humanity rather than a deterministic/predestinarian approach which makes salvation an impossibility for the great majority of humanity.

Reformation Arminianism may have some points of distinction with Wesleyan Arminianism, the latter being propagated in the American churches through denominations such as some Brethren groups, Methodist groups, Nazarene and Holiness groups, and by many Pentecostal/Charismatic groups. To be sure, Wesleyan Arminianism is derived from Reformation Arminianism, and they have much in common, but some groups of these groups would express their theology differently from Reformation Arminianism. While not all these issues are sorted out clearly, some Wesleyans theologians have questioned total depravity and penal satisfaction view of atonement. Moreover, some of them are well known for viewing salvation as something which can be lost at a moment’s indulgence in sin (i.e., “Repeat Regeneration”).

Matt Pinson, a Reformation Arminian, argues in a yet to be published article that Wesley himself forged a new perspective on the atonement, claiming that the atonement was a penal satisfaction for pre-conversion sins, but reflected the governmental view of atonement for post-conversion sins. This is supposed to be the basis for the tendency toward Repeat Regenerationism in some Wesleyan groups. In much of these discussions, Wesley seems to have been influenced to some extent by the Arminian Puritan John Goodwin who held to the governmental view of the atonement.

Reformation Arminianism, in contrast, is an accurate reflection of Arminius’ own theological urgencies and is subject to perhaps only 25% of Calvinistic refutational argumentation, leaving about 75% to knock over straw men. In many ways, Reformation Arminianism assumes the some of the important urgencies of the larger Reformed movement, and is several steps closer to Calvinism than Wesleyan Arminianism.

These issues have been hotly debated since the late 1500s, but seemed to lag much in the 1970s-1990s. During this period Calvinism seemed to be on the decline, prompting such journal articles as the cleverly titled, “Where Have All the TULIPs Gone?” However, in the last 10-15 years, there has been a tremendous resurgence of Calvinism, putting this important issue back on the table for discussion as local churches find themselves in the midst of the debate.


Reformation Arminian soteriology, like Calvinism, presupposes holiness as the basic character of God which is absolute. Thus, sin must be punished. A sin against an infinite and absolutely holy God demands an infinite and eternal punishment. Consequently, for Calvinists and Reformation Arminians alike, hell is not an arbitrarily created punishment, but rather one which is necessary to the holiness of God. God can’t just simply forgive sin; sin must be punished. God’s wrath must be satisfied.


Reformation Arminianism and Calvinism both view Jesus’ death as substitutionary. Instead of God’s wrath being poured out upon deserving sinners, Jesus died in their place, bearing the full wrath of God. Some Wesleyan Arminians believe that Jesus’ death was not a sin payment, but rather an astonishing demonstration of God’s love for humanity, designed to draw them to the Father. In contrast, Reformation Arminianism and Calvinism both agree that Jesus’ death was a payment for sin to satisfy God’s wrath. The sole point of disparity between Reformation Arminianism and Calvinism regarding the atonement is not its nature, but its extent: was it universal, or did Jesus only provide payment for the sin debt of the elect?


A recurring argument in the debate against Reformation Arminianism is that if Jesus’ death was a payment for sin, and if Jesus died for all humanity, then how could unbelievers rightly be sent to hell for sins which were already paid? Universal atonement, then, was argued to imply either universal salvationism (everyone goes to heaven), or to imply an unjust double payment for sin. (One wonders if this argument may have driven later Arminians to reject penal satisfaction.)

Reformation Arminianism unties the knot by appealing to the idea that the atonement was provided for everyone, but only applied to believers. (Lewis Sperry Chafer was one person who wrote a strong article to this effect, which was republished in a DTS journal in the late 1970s or early 1980s.)

Calvinists have a strong knee jerk reaction to the notion of an atonement which is provided but not applied, as witnessed in Murray’s work Redemption Accomplished and Applied. However, the careful Calvinist must concede that even within a Calvinistic system, atonement consists first of substitutionary payment followed second by application of the payment: the atonement benefits no one and effects nothing apart from Union with Christ.

This two-fold aspect of the atonement is, in principle, assumed by both Calvinists and Reformation Arminians. The difference is that Calvinists think that the atonement is applied automatically and co-extensively to the elect at the God-ordained time, while Reformation Arminians think that the atonement is applied not automatically, but on the condition of faith. Actually, to be precise, Reformation Arminians think that the atonement is applied to the individual’s account when the person is united with Christ through faith. But at any rate, both sides explain salvation in terms of the atonement being provided, and then applied—either automatically, or conditionally.

If Calvinistic atonement is not explained in terms of first being provided followed subsequently with its application, then a very strange scenario emerges wherein the elect end up having been eternally justified, without ever being children of wrath and under condemnation and without God in the world. This is contrary to the whole point of salvation which insists that we actually once lived in disobedience to God, but that God rescued us from this situation. If atonement was automatically applied at the point of Christ’s sacrificial death, then the elect really didn’t have an old way of life from which to be rescued. At this point, however, I’m not trying to defend or refute one position or the other, but only to assert that both sides must hold to a two stage salvation event, one in which atonement is first provided, followed by the application of the atonement to the individual.


Reformation Arminians take total depravity seriously. With Calvinists, they affirm that by himself, an individual cannot understand biblical revelation, or put his faith in Jesus, or do anything to earn salvation. The difference between the two is that Calvinists think that regeneration must occur first for these things to happen, while Arminians believe that God is capable of enabling a person to believe, with the result being that God regenerates him.

To put it more starkly, Calvinists don’t have any room for the idea that God could enable an unregenerate person to believe, while Reformation Arminians insist that God enables belief prior to regeneration. Of course, the Calvinist position is tied to the notion that God’s grace is irresistible, and whoever is called cannot do anything but respond in faith. In contrast, Reformation Arminians think that a person whom God convicts is enabled to believe, but can continue to resist.

In some sense, the Reformation Arminian position is not really an assertion of the human’s free will. According to Reformation Arminianism, the individual by himself is still unable to choose God by his own free will. His nature is such that he cannot overcome his propensity toward rebellion by his own strength. Like Calvinism, Reformation Arminianism believes that it is only by God’s gracious intervention that a person could overcome his total depravity. The difference lies in the fact that Calvinists think that God cannot enable a person to believe without first regenerating him, while Reformation Arminians think that the enabling happens prior to regeneration.


Calvinism and Reformation Arminianism have the same nuanced definition of faith. I can’t quote him exactly, but the Calvinist J.I. Packer defines faith along the lines of a person coming to the point of total self-abnegation where he understands that he has no resources of his own to merit salvation, and a complete trust in Jesus and his work on the cross for salvation. This is a good definition, and Reformation Arminians should be happy with it.

On the other hand, Calvinists have often charged that Arminians seem to make faith into a work worthy of salvation. Packer makes this charge especially against Wesleyanism, but Arminius and Reformation Arminianism is strongly insulated against such charges, for faith is not a meritorious act.

While faith is not a meritorious act, it is nonetheless the condition or agency through which salvation comes, as attested by the Pauline formula that salvation is through faith. Calvinists have objected to this position first on the ground mentioned before that unregenerate people cannot believe, and second, on the ground that this would make salvation by works.

I find it entirely ironic that Paul’s main thrust is that if you pursue salvation by faith, then you are not pursuing it by works, to use his language to the conclusion of Romans 9. Assuming the same definition of faith, as outlined above, if salvation is by faith, then it is not by works. Simply put, when the Calvinist claims that Arminians believe in a works-salvation, the response is that if it is by faith, by definition it cannot be by works.

And if God in his sovereignty chooses to make faith the condition whereby the atonement is applied, then we might ask, Who are you, O man, to say otherwise?

We are left to conclude then, that if God is capable of enabling an unregenerate person to choose to believe in him, and if faith is not a work, and if God established faith as a condition for salvation, then Reformation Arminianism’s view of salvation through faith is internally consistent.

Robert E. Picirilli (Grace, Faith and Free Will) has made the case that the ultimate issue between Calvinism and Reformation Arminianism is whether or not salvation is through faith. It seems that Calvinism has a very difficult time speaking clearly on this issue. On one hand, Calvinists want to affirm that salvation is by grace through faith, but on the other hand, they seem to formulate much of their views as if faith is merely the happy response of having been saved, as if the Pauline formula said, “Salvation by grace UNTO faith.”


If salvation is by grace through faith, Reformation Arminians argue by extension that continuance in salvation (i.e., eternal security) is also by grace through faith: “salvation by grace through faith; continuance in salvation by grace through faith.”

Ironically, Arminius himself claimed that he wasn’t prepared to take a position on whether or not a genuinely saved person could ever make shipwreck of his faith, explaining there are strong passages on both sides of the issue, and urging that further study is needed. Arminius’ heirs, however, generally reject the notion that once you are saved, you are always saved.

Reformation Arminianism differs remarkably from some Wesleyan groups on this issue. Some Wesleyans seem to think that a true believer is subject to losing his salvation by sinning. Ultimately, their view seems best explained as “salvation by grace through faith; continuance in salvation by not sinning.”

These varying positions on continuance in faith, then, can be compared along these formulaic lines:

Calvinism: salvation by grace unto faith; continuance in salvation guaranteed by grace UNTO faith.

Reformation Arminianism: salvation by grace THROUGH faith; continuance in salvation by grace THROUGH faith.

Some Wesleyan groups: salvation by grace through faith; continuance in salvation by not sinning.


The Calvinist-Arminian dialog probably ought to proceed along these lines. Unfortunately, J.I. Packer’s classic article “Arminianisms” which has informed so much of the Calvinist animus against Arminianism betrays little or no awareness of Arminius or of Reformation Arminianism (he knows only of “Rational Arminianism” and “Evangelical Arminianism,” i.e., Wesleyanism). As a result, a huge amount of the Calvinist animus is against straw men or, at least, against a form of Arminianism which makes a much easier target than Reformation Arminianism.